Sunday, 18 January 2015

A Tale of Three Raised Beds

When we first moved into the 'granny annex' at Mum and Dad's house I could only grow vegetables in pots and grow bags on and around the patio - their shrubby, woodlandy garden didn't have any space for vegetables and most of it was too shady anyway. That was okay by me - we had the allotment too, after all. But plant pots have a funny way of multiplying, don't they...? And with Mum and Dad moving toward organic food more and more (100% now I believe!), last year they gave me some more space to grow food for the whole family.

We planned three new veg-growing areas; one garden bed in a rare sunny spot where the shrubs weren't thriving any more, a large raised bed just in front of the patio which was occupied by a multitude of pots and tubs, and two smaller raised beds at the shadier end of the garden, where a small lawn was becoming overrun with moss and weeds and I had already put some moveable growbeds and containers for leafy crops (pic below). We decided against growing straight into the ground mostly because the garden soil is extremely heavy clay - not much fun to work with, but it'll make an excellent nutritious subsoil!


The timing was perfect; early spring when it warm enough to work outside but I'd still be able to sow everything in time. I cleared the garden bed, re-edged it to a slightly higher level and topped it off with the previous year's growbags and tubs. I hacked back the honeysuckle and snowberry that keep moving in from under the fence and planted strawberries round the edge, and it became a nursery bed for young plants for a while, while I worked on the other areas...


The big raised bed was to go on a slated area, so my first task was to scrape back all the slate chips.


We drew up some plans and ordered half sleepers (from UK Sleepers) cut from oak - a naturally long-lasting hardwood that doesn't need treating with chemicals to protect it.


I enlisted the help of my friend Dave (and his power tools!) to cut the wood to size and build the beds, using long outdoor-use 'green organic coated' timber drive screws from Wickes...



And a day and a half later all three were done and ready for filling!

 

I ordered the four tonnes of  'Veggie Gold' compost to fill them; a "ready-to-use" peat-free mix of compost, topsoil and manure, recommended for raised veg beds, which promised to be from sustainable sources with no added chemicals. I had to wait a while for it to arrive, which was a tad frustrating, but eventually it did...


...and the next two days were spent wheelbarrowing compost from the front of the house to the back (by myself, I'd like to add!). The larger bed has a weed membrane beneath it anyway, but in the two smaller beds I laid cardboard at the bottom to provide a barrier against weeds (until it rots, by which time they should have died from lack of light anyway).

 

Not a bad job, I think, and certainly a lot tidier than a jumble of containers. Hurrah! I got sowing right away, planning a row of peppers and chillies along the back of the big bed, some dwarf beans in front of them, and square-foot patches of different salad veg and small root crops along the front, with a few herbs and flowers dotted around as well. The two shady beds would take leafy greens - mostly kale and chard.


A few weeks in, I realised that all was not well... Things were growing rather strangely and inconsistently. Along a row of mustard seeds, the seedlings had grown large in patches and stalled at a tiny size in others. Some had bolted. A poached egg plant and some tiny spring onions I'd transplanted had yellowed very badly and become stunted. Spinach plants and radishes had bolted extremely prematurely, before reaching anything like a usable size.


A few weeks later still, little had changed. Those things that were growing were growing painfully slowly, or running straight to seed, while my crops on the allotment and in the garden bed in the corner were doing just fine. I began an experiment which confirmed my worst suspicions...


The two pots on the left contain the same 'Veggie Gold' compost that I filled the raised beds with; the two on the right contain old multipurpose compost out of one of the previous year's containers. The bottom two also have Complete Organic Fertiliser added. I sowed spinach seeds in all four pots at the same time, and thinned to three seedlings per pot after germination. The results are pretty clear I'd say - wouldn't you?

The company I had bought the stuff from - Compost Direct - didn't want to know. After three emails to them they finally replied to say that they only ever had good feedback about this compost and I should just add some more nitrogen or general-purpose fertiliser. I did, in the forms of chicken manure, chicken manure 'tea', and a commercial liquid feed. Nothing helped. I sent them the picture above. They didn't care. Just keep adding extra feed, they said. My blood boiled... All that sweat and hard work and money and anticipation and I couldn't even grow anything in my raised beds!

Luckily there were a few things that did seem to grow okay in the soil; little gem lettuces were slow but getting bigger, the carrots and beetroots didn't seem to mind, and the kale and chard down the garden was not too bad.


After giving it some thought, I suspected perhaps the problem was an excess of potassium; that would explain why adding more nitrogen hadn't helped leaf growth, as potassium blocks it. Potassium also encourages fruiting (perhaps hence the early bolting), and is prevalent in woody matter and straw - there had been loads of partially-composted woody stuff and strawy manure in the compost mix. I try not to consider myself a soil mineral expert after reading just one book but I still feel this is pretty likely the problem! And how do you get too much potassium out of soil? You wait for the rain to leach it out...


Growth improved very gradually throughout the year. I did get a couple of handfuls of beans even though the plants were more dwarf than ever, and the perpetual spinach got going after a while. I took to planting lots of spare plants and more lettuces in the bed - the more plants grow in it, the more potassium they use up, right? Nothing really thrived. I even let the weeds grow! I got a few nice peppers, though again the plants were small. The lettuces, it turned out, tasted starchy and bitter. My cucumbers, which I'd planted in a large container filled with the same compost, yellowed and died.


Happily, however, my bed in the corner of the garden was doing wonderfully! Two huge courgette plants gave us more than six of us could eat from June to September, and from all around them we had strawberries, lovage, tarragon, parsley, mangetout and drying beans. Calendula filled in all the gaps and brought bees buzzing to that corner of the garden. What a delight! I haven't grown courgettes at the allotment for years since we don't go there often enough to pick them, so I've made do with small courgette plants confined to pots and sulking. To see them going crazy like this - like they're meant to - was great!


The growth in the oak beds has continued to improve slowly and I am feeling quietly confident that I'll get better results this year. At the moment the large one has that same perpetual spinach (though it's rather slug-eaten just now!), some new and healthy garlic shoots, a tangle of old carrots and beetroots and a few sorry-looking herbs. The compost level has sunk a lot - nearly 25% - which will give me an opportunity to top it up with something better (though I still have nearly a half-ton of the 'Veggie Gold' sitting around...). I also plan to get the soil lab-tested at the same time as I get the allotment soil done - that'll be interesting... The kale in the bottom bed never really got very big - though caterpillars can be blamed for some of that - but it's okay, and I'm looking forward to a bit more growing success in the months ahead...



2 comments:

Lottie me said...

It was such lovely surprise to see you pop up on my watched list just now.

My goodness you had more than your fair share of problems, which is so frustrating for you after all the planning and expense.

I do so hope that this year is going to be a huge success

Nome said...

Aww, bless you, and thanks for stopping by :-) Gardening is always a bit of a rollercoaster, but it's always worth the ride!

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